After the fact

24Aug15

Before I had a baby, I was desperate to know how I would feel overall about the experience of having a child and caring for her. There is so much information and hyperbole and marketing around this major life event, but I know (now more than ever) that my previous knowledge, the sum of the words and pictures I had absorbed, are scant preparation for how something will make you feel. I remembered reading an article by a woman who said something like I just found looking after young children frequently boring and depressing; I feared feeling like that too and yet I truly wanted a baby. Are we ambivalent about having children because the whole experience itself engenders so much ambivalence? Is it because we know it will be so hard yet feel compelled – thanks, biology – to do it?

In the early weeks I felt shocked by how I suddenly seemed to have lost everything – freedom, time, personal space, the luxury of sleep. Newborns do not necessarily make you feel, immediately, that you have gained something great in place of these things. It seemed like some giant, mean cosmic trick, to ensure our biological desire to procreate then triumphantly show you the reality: ha! This is what it is really like!

I realised I had known nothing about babies. I was overwhelmed by how much our daughter cried and how little I felt understood her, my confusion over what she needed and my perceived inability to soothe her. I was obsessed by the idea that we had a “difficult” baby and would compulsively ask people if they thought she seemed “normal”. At the worst points I genuinely wondered if we had made a terrible mistake in giving up our autonomy, and I remember saying to my dad do you think we shouldn’t have had her?  It would have been easy for him to reassure me of the opposite, but instead he said I don’t think you had any choice. This calmed me so much in the moment: the inevitability of it, that we always would have had her.

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Our daughter is now 9 weeks old, universes away in every sense from her first weeks. She smiles at us so that her eyes crease up and her mouth is wide open in a hysterical canyon of joy. She smacks her lips together after a feed and arches her tiny body like a fat little seal. She gurgles and goos when she wakes up almost like she is holding a conversation. Her eyebrows rise like Robert de Niro and she has these expressions: solemn, baffled, bored, surprised, non-plussed, joyous. The best moments with her are heaving with love and heart-breaking and the best things that have ever happened to me. It is like everyone said it would be, which makes it hard to write about in any kind of new or interesting way. It is hard and rich and fiercely full of meaning and emotion and significance. It is what I wanted.

We are learning to spend our days together; I am learning to do what all mums must do on maternity leave – fill their time but not over-fill it, rest, learn to go with the flow and take each day at a time, balance what the baby needs with what you need to make sure you can be a good mother and also an actual individual away from your baby. At times I feel like we are almost permanently attached to each other and strangely, for now, I don’t mind. All the clichés about the low bits are true: how mad and sad sleep deprivation can make you; how exhausting the guesswork of what does the baby need right now is; how tiring it is to endlessly walk round and round and round a park with a baby who starts crying again whenever you stop for a rest; how suddenly you are sometimes hit with an ache so violent to be able to go for a cocktail or catch a film or try that new restaurant that it nearly floors you.

Such is the fug of new motherhood with its hormonal fuckery and broken nights that I cannot follow conversations, can’t tell one day to the next, sometimes can’t even remember the mood of days previous. Looking back to the first few weeks of her life, I cannot recall much about how the hours played out, what we did day to day – already I have forgotten. I think about women and our biology and whether I still think gender is constructed and think feminist-heathen thoughts like I can’t believe they let us fly planes. I tell myself not to fantasise about a time when I am not tired but to see tiredness and this general state as a long piece of string I am riding on.

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It feels necessary to constantly zoom out, else you could fixate on the fact that you’re singing Incey Wincey Spider again while you have a wee with the door open. People talk to you a lot when you have a baby, and older people often say these are the best years, don’t wish them away, and I believe them and that I must think of this long game, this bigger picture. In the future I think I will look back and see these early babyhood days in a summery blur and agree that yes, this was when I had everything.

I feel clearer about the nature of happiness than I have done before, and what I feel is that I am happier now things are harder. It is another cliché, the whole oh it’s really hard and tiring and a bit lonely and I miss going for long boozy evening meals and to the cinema BUT it is worth it because of how the baby has enriched our life! – and it is horribly true, for me. Every thought about maternal love is boring and predictable and just like everyone says. To us, she is perfect. Even when she is crying and the other babies are not, or when it seems impossible to put her down for more than 5 minutes, or when it’s 3am and I have changed the third nappy in an hour, I fiercely and whole-heartedly think to myself I would not change this about her. At first this felt like the strangest thing to me, but I have come to realise that this is real love, this total acceptance, this defence of imperfections or inconveniences because they are hers. I do not believe in fate or suchlike but somehow the way she is deeply feels like the way she was meant to be.

When she is crying, I look at her confusion and distress and think that it’s our job to get her through it, in this pre-verbal stage, by holding and feeding and loving her. I suppose it will always be our job to get her through it.

Sometimes at night I go to bed with her lying quietly beside me in her cot, her arms resting above her head, and I love her so much that I go through all the photos and videos of her on my phone because I need a dose of her before she wakes up a few hours later. This is the state I am brought to. This, apparently, is being a mother.

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One Response to “After the fact”

  1. 1 robgeorge57

    How is it that you so often reduce me to sobs (in a good way). Thinking about it, ‘reduce’ is quite the wrong word – ‘inspire’ is maybe better.


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